Is Heritage History?

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Let me start out by saying that I expect to be bulldozed in responses to this post. I recently attended a roundtable discussion hosted by the University of Richmond and the Museum of the Confederacy. The topic was “The Confederacy in the 21st Century” and the participants included a representative from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and three academic historians who focus on some aspect of 19th century history, including the Civil War. I was immediately struck by the emotional defensiveness of the SCV representative. One of the first questions addressed the reasons behind the flurry of monument building at the turn of the century. The SCV rep. provided a very straight-forward response which emphasized the desire on the part of white southerners to commemorate the heroism and valor of the fallen. The historians acknowledged that response, but then took it further to include references to the legacy of political Reconstruction, Jim Crow legislation, the push towards national reunion, and the rationalization of Confederate defeat. The follow-up question on the role played by white southern women received a similar response from the SCV rep., but the three historians emphasized the opportunity presented for women to become more engaged in the public sphere. The discussion of the history of the Confederate flag brought this distinction out even more clearly. Since one of the panelists is an expert on the history of the flag, his response was a sophisticated analysis of how the flag has in fact been used by groups for social and political purposes. The SCV rep. emphasized the importance of honoring one’s Confederate heritage and seemed unwilling to even consider alternative explanations. I assume the idea behind the panel was to have all four participants engage one another, but in the end it turned into a discussion between the three historians with the SCV rep. looking in from the outside.

I am not for one moment going to attempt to hide behind some lens of objectivity here. You can tell already that I am sympathetic with the historians on the panel. This is not to say that I reject out of hand the perspective of the SCV rep. I do reject it, however, as history if by ‘history’ we mean the collection of historical data followed by interpretation, and, most importantly, revision. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the argument that social historians are engaged in “politically correct” or “revisionist” history. All good history is revisionist history and as for the former critique, the phrase has been overused to the point where anything one disagrees with is labeled “politically correct.” We’ve learned a great deal about how early histories of the Confederacy and its “Lost Cause” were constructed and why. This “deconstruction” of the early histories of the war has proved useful to historians in better understanding the motivations of both northerners and southerners in not only the writing of their histories which culminated in a consensus account by the turn of the century, but in monument building and other forms of commemoration.

The divide seems to come down to those who are continually trying to attain a richer, more complete understanding of the past and those that are trying to hold on to a certain vision of the past. I always chuckle when I see the bumper stickers that say, “Heritage, Not Hate.” I don’t believe for a moment that people who identify with some notion of the Confederate past or fly the Confederate flag are hate mongers, but perhaps a bumper sticker that says, “Heritage, Not History” is just as accurate. I welcome responses to this post.

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